Mark Ryan woke up early with Debby on his mind. Hurricane Debby, that is. How could he sleep when he had to tangle with such a menacing force of nature? The day before, the hurricane's turbulent 75 MPH winds had barely missed Puerto Rico, and forecasters had predicted that Debby would intensify as it lumbered closer to Florida. Despite living in Atlanta, well out of harm's way, Ryan nonetheless felt as if he were gazing out the window of his beachfront home at a line of ominously dark clouds approaching. After months of preparation, he hoped that he was ready. His Web site would get hit — and hit hard.
Ryan, 39, is chief technology officer for weather.com, the online arm of the Weather Channel. Even at less-eventful moments, when the weather is not making headlines, the site generates heavy traffic — between 7 million and 10 million page views per day. During hurricane season, that number multiplies, often dramatically, depending on the severity and the path of the storm. At times, those spikes have overwhelmed the network, causing weather.com to become the one thing that Ryan wants to avoid: a slow site.
So earlier this year, Ryan's team of architects and engineers tossed out weather.com's existing infrastructure and completely rebuilt it. Despite finishing the massive, multimillion-dollar project just in time for hurricane season, no one on Ryan's team was confident or relaxed. How could they be? Forecasters had predicted a more active season than usual — as many as 7 hurricanes and 11 tropical storms — and Ryan still didn't know if weather.com could handle the severe jump in traffic. There was no way to simulate a spike of that magnitude. In other words, there was no way to know for sure — until an actual storm showed up on the doorstep of Florida, South Carolina, or North Carolina.
Enter Hurricane Debby. At 6 AM, Ryan logged on to his computer from home to check the network. It was hard to believe he wasn't dreaming. The rebuilt infrastructure had handled nearly 15 million page views the previous day without missing a beat. The average response time to download a page was about normal: just 1.7 seconds. That was well below the accepted industry threshold of 8 seconds — and more than twice as fast as the Business Top 40, the standard used by the company that monitors weather.com's speed.
As Hurricane Debby fizzled out that day, and weather.com's traffic returned to normal, Ryan exulted in the performance of his team and his site, congratulating team leaders and posting the impressive statistics on the door of the CEO's office. Granted, it was only one test — and only one very good day in August — but the numbers told Ryan and the rest of the weather.com staff what they needed to know: Weather.com was on solid ground. Twenty-million page views in one day? No problem. Thirty million? Bring 'em on.
These days, the forecast for most Web-based companies, and for the Internet economy in general, is "stormy weather ahead." Blue-sky strategic thinking has given way to batten-down-the-hatches battles for survival, against the gale-force winds of investor disgust, venture-capital confusion, and big-company backlash. Like houses destroyed by the random cruelty of a twister, Internet startups that once appeared promising are being reduced to nothing. Who would have thought, amid the rubble of laid-off employees, worthless stock options, and abandoned foosball tables, that one of the Web sites still standing would be rooted in the weather?
Weather.com hasn't just survived — it has become an online service with a loyal following that keeps growing. It is not just the top weather-related site but is one of the top sites on the entire Web. In July, for instance, which is traditionally an uneventful month weather-wise, 7.4 million individual users visited weather.com, which placed the Weather Channel 33rd on Media Metrix's list of Web domains, many of which pool their audience from multiple sites. Another 4 million to 5 million users accessed weather.com's customized service on AOL, the company's biggest partner. In all, that's around 12 million people who got information from weather.com.
By nearly any measure, the 5-year-old business is "growing like a weed," as Debora Wilson, weather.com's president and CEO, puts it. Weather.com's staff has grown from 3 employees in the early days to more than 150 employees this year. Its annual revenue is more than doubling, which puts the site on pace to turn a profit next year, in keeping with its five-year plan. And the number of page views is expected to double by year's end to around 3 billion, in part because of more than 200,000 weather.com affiliates. Every day, around 800 new Web companies drag and drop the Weather Channel's sky-blue logo to their own site, instantly adding features such as find-a-forecast at no charge.
Last January, weather.com officially spun off from the Weather Channel, although the two staffs still interact daily. In fact, they work in the same building north of downtown Atlanta. Wilson, 43, whose previous job at the Weather Channel was to come up with new ventures, such as providing weather information for radio stations and newspapers, says that weather.com is far and away the company's most important and most successful new business. It has taken the trusted source for weather information on cable TV and extended that brand well beyond the home — to desktop computers at work, to laptops in transit, to cell-phones, pagers, and other wireless devices that people carry wherever they go. Having signed partnerships with Palm Computing, SkyTel, Sprint PCS, and other leading wireless-technology players, weather.com is poised to ride what many expect will be technology's next big wave. "The goal is to be the, capital T-H-E, weather source for consumers wherever they are," says Wilson.
Many Internet companies have goals just as ambitious as Wilson's. But few of those companies have executed on those goals as effectively as weather.com has. "Right now, a lot of Internet companies that have good ideas are not succeeding," says Alex Kaminsky, 38, the site's vice president of marketing. "They're laying people off, and they're losing money. We're not. We satisfy the needs of 12 million to 14 million unique users every month."
The Weather: What's in it for You?
To Wilson and her Web team, weather is anything but dry because, by nature, it is so dynamic. They understand that weather has the capacity to inspire or to spoil your day, and if you're unprepared for truly severe conditions, it even has the capacity to devastate. "I always find it interesting that people are surprised at how big weather.com is, because it seems clear to me that we have what it takes to make a great business on the Internet," Wilson says. "We provide compelling information that consumers want and need on a daily basis. Mother Nature creates the perfect product for us. Weather is relevant to everyone in the world, and it's constantly changing, so people need to keep coming back to us for the latest information."
Of course, as recently as the early 1980s, people didn't consume nearly as much information about the weather as they do today. Although weather was just as relevant back then, people simply didn't have instant access to the latest forecasts for both Nebraska and the Netherlands. What little information existed was either incomplete, dated, or both. That was before newspapers began devoting an entire page to weather coverage, complete with full-color graphics. So most people had no choice but to wait for weather updates on the radio, or, more likely, for the three-minute report on the local TV news, which meant that they had to get by on weather information just twice a day, during the morning and the evening broadcasts. If they wanted more, they went hungry.
On May 2, 1982, the Weather Channel went on the air and changed all that — by offering weather-related news all day, every day. Instead of oddly cheery or mildly clownish weathermen, the Weather Channel offered unapologetic scientists who explained the weather in glorious detail. Despite gusts of widespread skepticism and downpours of derisive one-liners, the Weather Channel found an audience. Today, it is broadcast into more than 76 million homes throughout the United States and Latin America, one of its newest markets. It is one of the best-known media brands in the country.
The Weather Channel changed the weather-information landscape in a number of ways. Severe-storm coverage became riveting, breaking news, and the channel's meteorologists became minor celebrities. But the Weather Channel had a far more profound influence on mainstream culture. It didn't just feed farmers, pilots, and weather enthusiasts who had been hungry for more information. It created weather consumers by convincing ordinary people that they needed more weather information than they had been getting. "People now talk about high-pressure and low-pressure systems," says chief operating officer Todd Walrath, 34. "You can't imagine that conversation happening 20 years ago."
The Internet, says Wilson, has the potential to deepen the importance of weather even more. In a sense, it already has. According to a 1998 Pew Research Center study, more people go online to find weather information than to find any other type of news. Stock prices, sports scores, celebrity gossip — they all take a backseat to forecasts. At the same time, the number of sites offering forecasts has multiplied. But none has rained on weather.com's parade. "The difference between us and other weather entities is that we have the science part down, but we're interested in how science helps people," says Walrath. "We know that weather is a part of everyone's life. The question is, Can we help them make that connection?"
While it's true that you don't actually need weather forecasts on a daily basis in the way that you need food, gas, or clothing, weather.com is built around the bedrock belief that the more weather information you get, the better off you are. You may not be able to control the elements, but you can be properly prepared for them. Maybe you avoid getting sick by wearing a sweater on a night that you know will turn chilly. Maybe you save time by taking an earlier flight in order to avoid having your plane delayed by an approaching thunderstorm. Maybe you reschedule an afternoon sailing trip with your kids because it's supposed to rain that day.
Consequently, weather.com focuses on translating reams of weather data not only into timely, local forecasts but also into information about activities affected by the weather, such as sailing, gardening, golf, or travel. The result is a site that has grown to about 300,000 pages — more than a million if you count the inventory of maps. Until recently, though, finding what you needed was at times like wandering through a quirky bookstore. So besides overhauling its hardware this year, the staff is in the process of completely redesigning the site. To accompany its bread-and-butter content, updated maps, and forecasts, the site is adding tools that report flight arrivals and that rate golf-course conditions. "What we've found is that customers want a forecast, but that's not all they want to know," says Wilson. "It's just the beginning."
But if you don't put customers in control and give them quick, easy access to the most relevant material, they won't stick around. That's an ongoing concern at weather.com. Although past research has indicated that the audience is growing, says Walrath, the company has been troubled by another statistic: On average, visitors come to the site six times a month — not quite twice a week. Frequency of use is a revealing measure of loyalty, Walrath explains, and although the six-times-a-month rating is good for a weather site, it's roughly one-third that of a top portal. "Obviously, everybody can't come to us every day, but we want to get to the point where a lot more people are coming on a daily basis," he says.
He realizes that at some point the number of weather.com users will stop doubling every year, so strengthening the relationship with existing customers is critical. This is one of the main goals of the redesign, which changes the way that users see weather: Different users see the information that applies directly to them. For instance, while rain is equally important to a golfer and a gardener in Seattle, wind conditions are more relevant to the golfer and the overnight low temperature is more relevant to the gardener. The site should reflect both views. In other words, weather-related information needs to be put in context for each user. The challenge has been how to merge weather data with activity data.
Information architect David Davila, 34, spent months designing the new navigation. What he came up with resembles a wheel — with the user in the center and with the most relevant information to that user located on spokes that are only one or two mouse clicks away. Before the redesign, the site used a navigation tree that had relatively few branches. Even though those branches ran deep, it might take a user a half-dozen clicks to locate something. Now, rather than having to look along two separate branches of the site to find, say, golf-related links and Houston weather maps, the site presents the two in close proximity, based on a user's input. The view isn't limited to golf, though. All the other links related to Houston, such as local allergy or travel content, are also on the page. This is not simply more information — but more meaningful information.
Besides more customized views of the weather, weather.com offers its users an in-depth perspective on how weather works and how it affects the world. Since the site isn't limited by the time constraints that limit broadcast television, weather.com features a much wider assortment of material: from the latest weather stories in the United States and abroad to research papers written by the channel's meteorologists. As a writer and producer, Julie Galle, 26, typically writes or updates three to five stories a day for weather.com's news center. After a morning briefing with one of the meteorologists in the channel's first-floor studio, she brainstorms with a handful of colleagues about the day's possible stories. Today's lineup: the latest on Hurricane Debby, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm; the possible relief that a monsoon around the Canadian border could bring to people fighting forest fires in Montana and Idaho; and the effects of a drought on a Louisiana bayou.
Although weather is always making news somewhere, some days are more eventful than others — a reality that requires Galle to see news stories where others might overlook them. Some stories are whimsical. "It never rains at the Emmys. Isn't that a cool story?" Galle asks. Others are dramatic, like the one-year anniversary of the tornado that hit Oklahoma City. Galle discovered empty lots where houses had once stood and trees without treetops. She met a woman who had survived the storm by huddling in a closet with her children as the rest of the house was destroyed. "That story makes you realize that the things we report on — the storms, the hurricanes, the tornadoes — affect someone out there," Galle says.
"We've Deputized Our Users"
Weather.com inherited its intense focus on customers from the Weather Channel itself, which has been doing extensive research on its viewers for years. "There's not a company in the world that understands the weather consumer the way we do," says Wilson.
Weather.com divides weather consumers into three basic categories. "Weather enthusiasts" are the sort of folks who refer to the Weather Channel's personalities as OCMs (on-camera meteorologists), who know them all by name, and who even know their specialties. Weather enthusiasts can easily visit a weather.com chat room for a couple of hours to discuss today's rain, last winter's snowfall, or a fear of lightning. Sometimes they study satellite images online in order to produce their own forecasts. "Planners," on the other hand, visit weather.com regularly but don't stick around very long. They only want the forecast as it relates to work, school, travel, or whatever it is that they're planning. Is it going to rain or not? How hot is it going to be? How cold? Whatever the forecast, planners want to make sure that they're prepared. And then there are "commodity users." They have neither an enthusiast's enthusiasm nor a planner's discipline. If it crosses their mind, commodity users might check out an occasional forecast, but in general, they don't think about the weather on a regular basis.
Weather.com staffers are able to know how those customers are feeling at virtually any given moment. The number of page views from the previous day are posted near both entrances to the company's offices, and throughout the day, employees can consult the company's intranet to see which pages are visited most. Wilson says that such instant tracking is a powerful tool in terms of gauging customer satisfaction. "You literally know every day how good a job you did," she says. "I would hate manufacturing a product that sits on a retail shelf and then have to wait three years to find out if anybody used it."
Weather.com users play a crucial role in product development. In the early stages of its redesign, the site asked groups in four cities to prioritize the sort of activities that they planned around weather information. Paula Mossaides, 46, who is the director of site navigation, and her staff learned that while customers said they used weather.com to plan vacations, in reality they didn't do that very often. Gardening and golf, however, were far more likely to drive users to the site. It didn't take long for developers to merge the site's weather data with content related to those pastimes. In the case of golf, product developers are taking the concept one step further by creating a golf algorithm that weighs several factors, including wind and the probability of rain, and then ranks local golf courses in terms of the forecast conditions. This fall, before launching its redesign, weather.com sent about 200,000 emails to its regular visitors, inviting them to explore its beta site and to fill out an online survey. The survey results are helping the company to work out some wrinkles before the official launch of the redesign that's scheduled for this winter.
On a daily basis, weather.com's customers are also its best critics. Nearly every page of the site has a link that reads, "Send us your feedback about this page." This feature is known internally as "fast track," and about 600 users respond every day. Customers point out what they like but, more importantly, what they don't — such as when information is missing, unclear, or inconsistent. "When you consider all the city pages and maps, we don't have enough eyeballs around here to see everything," says Marshall Massengale, the online customer-service coordinator. "So we've deputized our users. The other day the numbers spiked because a radar wasn't updating in time, and we were about to go in right away and fix the problem."
Before the company purchased software to manage its voluminous feedback, Massengale, 49, handled most of it himself. On a good day, he would write 120 individual replies. Now the process is mostly automated. Two employees categorize incoming messages by content and then key a corresponding code (for instance, "too much text/boring" or "loads too slowly"), which generates an automated acknowledgment. In general, 95% of feedback-related messages get answered within three days.
While criticism may sting, Massengale says it's the ultimate sign of the loyalty and ownership that customers feel. Given his own longtime passions for Levi's jeans and Jeep Wranglers (he has paraphernalia for both in his cubicle), he understands the sentiment. "They care enough to tell us what the problem is," he says. "If they didn't plan to come back, they wouldn't say anything."
In a way, the Weather Channel was just waiting for an interactive medium like the Web to come along. Its customers were already dying to interact. They regularly called or wrote to ask questions about the weather (What causes a low-pressure system?); about the meteorologists delivering the weather (Which hurricane was the most memorable to John Hope — and could I get an autographed picture of him?); and about minutia behind the broadcast (What was the background music that you played this morning?).
Today, the majority of those questions come to weather.com. Besides fast track, there's a link called "Talk to Us." And although weather.com can't provide each query with a unique response, it can answer questions promptly, thanks to its automated system. "Having that system is part of the conversation that we carry on with our users," says Wilson. "That is just really important to us. I think it further cements their loyalty."
As with the feedback messages, customer-service representatives categorize meteorological questions and then generate an automated response that offers an answer. Weather.com already has most of the answers in its database — because at one time or another, Jenny Dean, 44, has fielded the question. A former meteorologist at the Weather Channel, one of the original weather.com employees, and now the HTML team leader, Dean used to personally answer weather questions that were sent in by users. She says that she settled many a bet between spouses as well as among bar patrons. To avoid duplicating her research and retyping the same replies, she saved her explanations. Fortunately, Dean says, some questions only come around once. Like one that asked if communities construct phony trailer parks to divert tornadoes. (Considering that she lived in a trailer at the time, she was not amused.) Or one that asked whether it is safe to have sex on a waterbed during a storm. (She declined to dignify that one with a reply.) "People ask questions that you would never think of," she says, shaking her head.
Technology: What Comes After Doppler Radar?
Because the weather is always changing, it may seem ideal for a real-time medium such as the Web. But coping with those changes is incredibly demanding from a technical standpoint. Just like fluctuating stock prices, the temperature has a short shelf life. Actually, it's even more perishable — because weather doesn't take nights or weekends off. Because it isn't humanly possible to update the conditions and the forecasts for 77,000 different places around the world on an hourly basis, weather.com relies on cutting-edge technology. "We're one of the most automated sites on the Web," says Walrath.
Every 5 minutes, a new Doppler-radar image arrives in the system and gets cut into 157 local images. Every 15 minutes, a U.S. satellite image arrives and is cut into 10 regional slices. And every hour, the latest parameters for temperature, precipitation, and other current conditions arrive, giving a snapshot of the atmosphere at thousands of different points around the world. The current observations get updated, and if they're different than what were previously forecast, the 12-hour forecast takes the new information into account and adjusts accordingly. Within minutes of arriving, most of the new data has been processed, analyzed, and packaged for the appropriate destination, whether it's a PalmPilot or a city page on the Web site. "The Internet environment changed the whole paradigm," says Ian Miller, 46, VP of weather-systems development at the Weather Channel. Whereas the Weather Channel broadcasts one view of the weather at a time, weather.com broadcasts as many different views simultaneously as users request. Because of the data necessary to produce more detailed profiles of more locations, says Miller, "We're going through a weather-information revolution."
The engineers and architects at weather.com have mastered most of those technical challenges. But here's the key to their innovative environment: They act as if they've mastered nothing. "When you focus on the customer, you're never satisfied," says Wilson. "There's always something that you can improve."
Of course, there's improvement — and then there's radical improvement. Despite weather.com's dominance among online weather-content providers, the company has reinvented nearly every phase of its operation over the past couple of years: how it assembles weather data and generates forecasts; the type of products it offers and how they get built; and how those products get delivered to the various platforms. The result is a faster, more efficient overall operation. Walrath estimates that the staff completed 12 months' worth of projects this year in just 6 months. "Over the past four years, we've gone from being a weather company to being a technology company that operates more like a software company," he says.
Ian Rushton, 42, weather.com's vice president of architecture, recognized that incremental changes wouldn't radically speed up the site, so he recommended completely replacing the existing physical architecture. It was a multimillion-dollar risk that in the end reduced download time from 18 seconds to less than 2 seconds. "Effectively, we ripped the engine out of a car while going down the highway — and we didn't skip a beat," he says. "We doubled the service capability of the whole site. It's a huge accomplishment."
Huge accomplishments like that often require daring decisions, something that weather.com doesn't shy away from. "Debora understands what it means to be supportive of emerging technology," says Ryan, the company's chief technology officer. "Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it takes resources, and sometimes you're going to fail. But failure isn't something to be looked down on. It's a step in the maturation process if you're going to be leading edge."
Those technical opportunities and that "best of breed" mentality has attracted some very talented people. Ryan came to weather.com in October 1999 from eBay, where he was that company's chief technology officer. Before that, he worked at IBM, where he, Rushton, and two others who would eventually join weather.com built the complex networks that have supported the last several Olympic Games. At weather.com, Ryan says, "You have the chance to take one of the innovative leaders in the industry to the next level. . . . Maybe I get bored quickly, but I'm always looking for what's new and what's creative — and that's what I get to do around here."
A lot of decisions that must be made involve tweaking the site and making minor adjustments to applications, to servers, or to operating levels. Such issues come up every day. But with a high-volume Web site, there's no such thing as a small tweak. Change is change. It's risky. Every time that you touch the site, you could bring it down. One reason the engineers at weather.com feel comfortable about changing the site throughout the day is that they systematically manage their changes. Every morning, at the change-request meeting, team members review various requests and decide which alterations to make, as well as the order in which to make them. Throughout the day, a change coordinator monitors the sequence of the changes and then records each modification as it is made. That way, if something does go wrong, the engineers can quickly identify the most likely source of the problem.
Weather Changes — Strategy Doesn't
As important as it is to continue altering parts of the company, some business assumptions at weather.com are unwavering — take its business forecast, for example.
"This is not a culture where the CEO comes up with a new strategy every day, based on what the analysts are saying or what the marketplace is doing," says Wilson, the company's CEO. "That seems to me a desperate mode of operation. We absolutely know what our business is, and we are absolutely focused on our content category. Instead of scattering in different directions, we do 100 things right every day to get us farther along that line."
Unlike her often manic, frenetic, and in-your-face dotcom counterparts, Wilson is calm, purposeful, and poised — pleasant, yet also to the point. But she's no less intense. She begins her day at 5:30 AM, when her husband and teenage daughter are still asleep. For an hour and a half, she goes through her mail from the previous day and then she reads business magazines, Internet newsletters, cable trade journals, and the Wall Street Journal — about three dozen publications in all.
"Debora is a sponge," says Walrath. "I've never given her an article that she hadn't read already. She reads more in three days than most people do in a month." Wilson shrugs it off as part of the job — an Internet CEO's homework. "This industry does not allow you the luxury of not knowing what's happening on a day-to-day basis," she says. "So much is happening and changing." If she comes across a potential advertiser or partner, she picks up the phone and matter-of-factly leaves a pre-dawn phone message for her employees. "They think I'm nuts," she jokes.
Wilson says that in order to fully understand the customer experience, you have to act as one of your company's customers from time to time. In terms of weather consumers, she's more of a planner than a weather enthusiast. Recently, when she was planning to pick up her youngest brother at the Atlanta airport, she monitored the status of his flight from Washington, DC, using weather.com's new flight-arrival feature. Sure enough, his plane was delayed. "It was very useful," she says. "I was running late, and I didn't want to spend more time at the airport than I needed to."
Having been at weather.com from the beginning, Wilson has been able to shape its culture. One reason that members of the management team work well together, she says, is that "the interpersonal relationships here are built on trust." Jody Fennell, who is weather.com's vice president and executive producer, says that Wilson sets a positive tone. "Debora is an older sister to five siblings, and I think that influences her style of management," says Fennell, 39. "Debora has been an amazing mentor. She knows how to bring out the best in people. She's one of the most diplomatic people I've met in my life."
A diplomat? Running an Internet company? It's just one more unlikely ingredient in weather.com's unlikely success. You don't need a weatherman to know which way these winds are blowing.
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. Contact Debora Wilson by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: Weather Watchers
There is no better barometer of the passion that some people have for the weather than the message boards on weather.com. Since the boards went online in July 1999, users have posted more than 100,000 comments. Weather fans debate which storms are the most ferocious. They share survival stories — about chasing twisters and about being devastated by them. They follow all the latest meteorological technology.
The following messages were posted to the "weather fanatics" online bulletin board in July.
Caren: Friends just don't understand my love of bad weather.
ARIZWX: "After 28 yrs at this, I really don't expect anyone to understand.... To see that storm brew and spool up is humbling and exciting."
La-lady: "When a tropical system is in the Gulf or Caribbean I am glued to the TV. Can't help it, I love 'bad' weather."
Hi: "You want to feel the wind rise, and watch as the trees bend and break. Then you see it for the first time, a nice formed funnel cloud coming down ready to rip, twist, and destroy anything. Yes I love this feeling you should to."
Lisa Felty-Porter, 33, a banker turned stay-at-home mom, is one of 16 volunteer moderators for the daily chat rooms. About one-third are mothers with young children, but there's also a teacher, a couple of college students, a hardware-store owner, and, until recently, a car salesman. "People who aren't into weather don't think you can talk about weather all day, but you can," says Felty-Porter. "The more you learn, the more fascinating it is."
As much as die-hard fans enjoy discussing the weather, nothing compares with seeing it in all its wondrous and terrifying beauty, either up close or in pictures. When weather.com added a gallery of users' weather photos, it wasn't even advertised, and yet is still generated 12 million page views in the first six months.
Donna Pistilli-Sauer, 27, can appreciate the passion people have for the weather. A self-professed "weather geek" who majored in meteorology at Penn State, she, until recently, reported and wrote for weather.com's news center. Weather is a problematic hobby, she says, because what aficionados find thrilling ahs the potential to do tremendous harm. "Just to see these big storms come together and to see how much power they have, you can't help but be interested in how they work," says Pistilli-Sauer. "They're strong enough to change the landscape, but at the same time, because they change landscapes and change lives, they're awful. You just hope that they stay offshore."
Sidebar: The Tao of Weather
Picture this, Gene Kelly singing and dancing and getting thoroughly soaked in the rain. "Check weather.com," the announcer says. Then, after a long pause, "to find out when it's going to rain."
If you don't recognize the ad, you're not alone. It hasn't aired yet. In fact, it hasn't even been made. But it has appeared endlessly in Alex Kaminsky's imagination.
As VP of marketing at weather.com, Kaminsky has the rather delicate job of taking the Weather Channel — one of the best-known media properties around — in a new direction. It's not that the Weather Channel failed to establish a successful brand, he says. Far from it. The company has established itself as one of the most reliable sources for weather information. But he believes that its reliability is part of a larger story. "I hate to sound like a naysayer," Kaminsky says of the channel's image, "but it's boring. We've done a great job delivering all the functional attributes, but you now what? We forgot the stuff that makes us magnetic."
He half-jokingly calls himself weather.com's "resident artist-philosopher." he's that and more: a marketing veteran who worked at MindSpring, ESPN, and Turner Entertainment Group before joining weather.com in December 1999. At ESPN, Kaminsky helped create that network's popular in-house ads. One of this favorite ads involved "recently discovered" footage of Ty Cobb waxing about the game. (It was actually an actor doing a dead-on portrayal.) Kaminsky would like to find a way to honor weather's heroes, like Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, whom he calls "our Babe Ruth."
What gives ESPN its voice and its personality, he says, is its distinct point of view — that of a fan, rather than a huge, impersonal sports network. He's still defining weather.com's point of view, but he knows it's not that of a fan. There's a broader, more emotional side to the weather, he says. The idea is to tap into that psychology, that latent appreciation for the weather and for the large and small ways that it affects us daily. The universal, emotional side of the weather reminds us that we're a part of something big. "The fact that the Grand Canyon was formed by weather is pretty cool," he says. If the Weather Channel brand reminds people of the times in their lives when weather was an important ingredient, "we'll vastly change people's perceptions of our role in the world."
Weather, he argues, is ultimately about life. "We're helping people prepare for severe weather, but we're also helping them plan for good times. For that bikes ride around the block with their daughter. For that afternoon when they can sit back in a chair and bask in a beautiful day. I think that we should get credit for some of that."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.